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The next giant leap: why Boris Johnson wants to ‘go big’ on quantum computing | Computing

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The technology behind everyday computers such as smartphones and laptops has revolutionised modern life, to the extent that our our day-to-day lives are unimaginable without it. But an alternative method of computing is advancing rapidly, and Boris Johnson is among the people who have noticed. He will need to push the boundaries of his linguistic dexterity to explain it.

Quantum computing is based on quantum physics, which looks at how the subatomic particles that make up the universe work. Last week, the prime minister promised the UK would “go big on quantum computing” by building a general-purpose quantum computer, and secure 50% of the global quantum computing market by 2040. The UK will need to get a move on though: big steps have been taken in the field this year by the technology superpowers of China and the US.

Peter Leek, a lecturer and quantum computing expert at Oxford University, says “classical” computing (the common term for computing as we know it) has been an incredible 20th-century achievement, but: “the way we process information in computers now still doesn’t take full advantage of the laws of physics as we know them”.

Work on quantum physics, however, has given us a new and more powerful way of processing information. “If you can use the principles of quantum physics to process information then you can do a range of types of calculations that you cannot do with normal computers,” says Leek.

Classical computers encode their information in bits – represented as a 0 or a 1 – that are transmitted as an electrical pulse. A text message, email or even a Netflix film streamed on your phone is a string of these bits. In quantum computers, however, the information is contained in a quantum bit, or qubit. These qubits – encased in a modestly sized chip – are particles such as electrons or photons that can be in several states at the same time, a property of quantum physics known as superposition. This means qubits can encode various combinations of 1s and 0s at the same time – and compute their way through vast numbers of different outcomes.

“If you compared a piece of memory in a normal computer, it is in a unique state of ones and zeroes, ordered in a specific way. In a quantum computer that memory can be simultaneously in all possible states of ones and zeroes,” says Leek.

To really harness this power requires an “entanglement” of pairs of qubits: if you double the number of qubits the computing power increases exponentially. Link these entangled qubit pairs together and you get a very powerful computer that can crunch through numbers at unprecedented speed, provided there is a quantum algorithm (the set of instructions followed by the computer) for the calculation you want to do.

Jay Gambetta, a VP of quantum computing at IBM, which last week unveiled the world’s most powerful quantum processor, says: “The combined system has a computational power that is much more than the individual systems.” The computer firm’s US-made Eagle quantum processor – a type of computer chip – strings together 127 qubits compared with the 66 achieved recently by the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei.

Gambetta stresses that the practical applications of quantum computers are not there yet, but theoretically they could have exciting uses like helping design new chemicals, drugs and alloys. Quantum computing could result in a much more efficient representation of chemical compounds, says Gambetta, predicting accurately what a complex molecule might do and paving the way for new drugs and materials. “It gives us a way to model nature better,” he adds.

There are ways in which quantum computing could help combat global heating, too, says Gambetta, by more efficiently separating carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon monoxide, reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Alternatively, quantum computing could help understand how we can make fertiliser by using much less energy.

Last year, IBM teamed up with German carmaker Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, to use quantum computing to model new lithium batteries. Renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, electric cars, fertiliser: if these are just some of the products that can be enhanced by quantum computing, then the UK understandably wants to be at the forefront of the market.

Once quantum computing reaches the 1,000 qubit level it should be able to achieve what IBM calls “quantum advantage”, where a quantum computer consistently solves problems faster than a classical computer. IBM is hoping to reach 1,000 qubits via its Condor processor in 2023.

The UK’s strong university system – and long history of innovation, epitomised by Alan Turing in computing and Paul Dirac in quantum mechanics – gives the country some hope of achieving Johnson’s goal. But Gambetta’s IBM colleague Bob Sutor says that for the UK and other countries ambitious in making advances in quantum computing, educations and skills are key – at university level and below, including schools. “The more people working on it, the faster we will get there.”

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Best podcasts of the week: what does the bloodsucking saga Twilight tell us about society? | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Big Hit Show
“Twilight is stupid; if you like it, you’re also stupid.” Why is there so much vitriol towards female Twihards? (Spoiler: misogyny.) In the first run of a series unpicking pop culture’s biggest moments – from the Obamas’ media company – Alex Pappademas starts by dissecting the wildly popular tale of teenage vampire love – and what the reactions to it say about us. Even if you’re not a fan, he raises some great questions. Hollie Richardson

Fake Psychic
Journalist Vicky Baker captivated listeners with Fake Heiress and now she investigates the fascinating story of Lamar Keene, the go-to spiritualist of 1960s America. When he hung up his questionable crystal ball he decided to reveal the tricks of supposed psychics, and Baker asks if that too was a con while pondering the authenticity of the psychics who followed. Hannah Verdier

Deep Cover: Mob Land
Animal lover, lawyer and switcher of identities Bob Cooley is the subject of Jake Halpern’s new season of the reliably mysterious podcast. Cooley was a top Chicago mob lawyer in the 70s and 80s, but what was the price when he offered to switch to the FBI’s side? This dive into corruption quizzes the key figures around him. HV

Chutzpod
This lively, engaging podcast attempts to “apply a Jewish lens to life’s toughest questions”. Hosts Rabbi Shira Stutman and one-time West Wing actor Joshua Malina cover topics ranging from reality TV shows to the Jewish “New Year of the Trees”, via the recent hostage stand-off at a synagogue in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville. Alexi Duggins

Backstage Pass with Eric Vetro
Eric Vestro is a vocal coach who’s worked with the likes of John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Ariana Grande. Here, he entertainingly lifts the curtain on their craft, talking to them about their journey in a manner that feels genuinely intimate given their pre-existing relationships. Expect some enjoyably daft voice exercises too. AD

Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade.
Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade. Photograph: Chris Radburn/Reuters

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

It’s fair to say that in the last couple of years the British monarchy has been put under a microscope for the way they handle their own family members, whether that be an heir to the throne and his American wife, or a prince embroiled in a civil sex abuse case. In a two parter titled Royally Flush, however, the Broccoli Productions’ Human Resources podcast goes back in time to investigate the royal family’s role in the slave trade in Britain, questioning how influential they were in trying to prevent abolition.

This is clearly a pandemic production as audio quality can sometimes be shaky, but the content is an important listen. As the country gears up to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, writer and host, Moya Lothian-McLean takes us on an unexplored trip down memory lane, presenting fascinating insights into why – despite ample evidence that the monarchy was historically instrumental in propping up the slave trade in Britain – we haven’t heard so much as a sorry coming from Buckingham Palace, according to the program maker.

Talking points

  • Never underestimate the skill that goes into making a good podcast. Over a year since Meghan and Harry’s audio production company Archewell signed a podcast deal with Spotify, they’ve only managed to release a single podcast. Hence, presumably the job ads Spotify posted this week, looking for full-time staff to help Archewell.

  • Why not try: Smartless | Screenshot

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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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